How the Africans brought Plumbing to Sicily: The Cefalù Laundry

The African immigrant crisis continues in Sicily and Lampedusa. At its peak the island of Lampedusa, which usually has 2,000 inhabitants and a plumbing infrastructure to fit, was also home to 5,000 refugees from Libya. The plumbing could not cope and people had no alternative but to use the beaches as toilets.

The Lampedusan economy depends exclusively on tourism and if their beaches are spoiled, they will starve. It was only when things got this bad, and the Lampedusans panicked about the risk of a cholera or dysentery epidemic, that they started telling boatloads of Africans to go away.

The entrance to the African laundry


I think this human tragedy is doubly sad and ironic, because it was the African conquerors who built so much of Sicily’s first hygienic plumbing, in early Medieval times. They constructed public laundries all around Sicily, and many of them were used until the 1950’s, when Sicilians started to have running water in their houses. Some of them were used right up until the shoulder-padded eighties!

Can you imagine washing your rah-rah skirt in this? Try not to splash your pixie boots!

The nearer pools are for rinsing laundry, and the far pool is ringed with fountain heads for collecting drinking water


Several of the African laundries are still open to the public, but the most famous and probably the most accessible is the one in Cefalù. The medieval laundry sits in the very centre of town, built over the river which was corralled into channels which filled a series of rectangular basins. The women would begin downstream, soaping up their clothes, then move to a sink upstream to rinse them. The water taps at the highest point were for people to collect drinking water in vessels to take home.


Cefalù cathedral. The piazza here is full of wonderful cafès.


Cefalù is a touristy town packed with excellent restaurants, a beautiful cathedral and lots of interesting shops. It also has several gorgeous beaches.

It is an ideal place for a singles holiday because you can so easily meet other people. I think enrolling in one of the towns language schools to learn some Italian might be the best way to make friends fast. There are also windsurfing schools for the sporty, cookery courses and art classes: it’s best to look for these online as they come and go rapidly, so tour guide books are usually out of date.

The cathedral has a Byzantine mosaic in the cupola. The rest of the interior is very plain as it suffered damage in the past.

“Hello? Francis? Can you hear me?”


Cefalù is packed with excellent restaurants, many of which overlook the sea and most of which are much cheaper than you might expect.

A street in Cefalù


When the Normans wrested Sicily from the Africans in the 12th century, they made Cefalù one of their military strongholds.

The rocky fortress on top of the cliff overlooks the cathedral and central piazza. It was built by the Normans when they had just conquered Sicily, as a military-fortress-cum-monastery. I would like to see the story of the Viking warrior monks turned into a movie starring Dolph Lundgren and Jean-Claude Van Damme, doing the splits.


This stone detailing sits over a large wrought iron gate.


Cefalù beach is popular for water sports including wind surfing.


Well, that was a nice day out.


With thanks to my very talented friend Adrienne, who took most of the photos in this post.


15 Comments Add yours

  1. What a great post and what wonderful photos. I wonder if any Africans continued living on in Sicily after the Normans took over?


    1. I do know lots of them left, but some stayed on as architects (they designed many of the Norman churches which sprang up all over Sicily when the Normans took over) and also a lot of them formed the civil service and particularly the financial administration. The Jews were also encouraged to stay on, as they were the scribes and interpreters and the island basically could not function without them. There was a kind of truce between tolerance due to necessity, and persecution.
      When the Spanish took over a couple of centuries later they brought the inquisition and anyone who was not a Catholic was put to death, or fled.
      Nowadays the average Sicilian has only 2% to 4% DNA that can be classified as North African/Arab, so I think that gives a good indicator of what percentage of the population was made up of Africans who stayed on.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. T. Franke says:

    “… it was the African conquerors who built so much of Sicily’s first hygienic plumbing, in early Medieval times …” – Well, well, it is a question of perspective: This is only true, if we omit Greeks and Romans, who, by the way, brought plumbing to Africa … – did you visit the Museo Mandralisca? Great stuff there! And they even have a public toilet at the central place in Cefalù: Thumbs up!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, true, though the Romans didn’t do much for Sicily other than extensive deforestation so that they could turn the place into their Imperial Shipyard, and taking as much food and money from the Sicilians as they possibly could.
      I thought they only built plumbing for the Roman governors and administrators in their big villas?
      I have seen Greek irrigation channels bringing water through the centre of the town at Agrigento, so yes, the Greeks brought plumbing, but most of it had been neglected and abandoned under chaotic Byzantine rule by the time the Africans arrived I think.
      Though maybe am I missing something.
      I tried to visit the Museo Mandralisca twice but both tkimes it was “closed for refurbishment”…. Ah, Sicily!!!


      1. T. Franke says:

        Why only do I have the feeling that our era is a Byzantine era?

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Ha ha! Yes the museum directors are definitely Byzantine. And the people who work in the council. And the bin men. OK, you’re right, they’re all Byzantine!!!


  3. I’ve visited Cefalu but didn’t have time to see the laundry or much more than the Cathedral. One thing about the Cathedral that not a lot of people know, there are Arabic paintings on the beams of the nave. But they’re so high up and it’s so dark, it’s hard to see them.

    There is one book I have found, “Medieval Islamic Symbolism and the Paintings in the Cefalù Cathedral,” by Mirjam Gelfer-Jørgensen, that has photos of the paintings, taken in the 1980s by a very brave photographer crawling around on the beams up there. They are similar to the paintings done on the muquarnas of the Capella Palatina in Palermo, but cruder and because of the constraints of the surface, smaller.

    Anyway, the Arabs who stayed on the island after the Normans conquered were mostly poorer farmers in the western part around Palermo; they were serfs for “lords” such as the monks of Monreale. The others were slaves in the court (these were mostly women, and many of them worked in the tiraz, or royal silk works) and merchants. There were also the eunuchs in the service of the court diwan, or administration. Most of the noble class fled to Spain or North Africa. There were some converts.

    The Arabs persisted until the reign of Frederick II, although there were some horrific slaughters against them (during the reign of William II, for example, when Muslims were persecuted as sexual predators). There were problems and rebellions among the Arabs during his regency and early reign, and when he became emperor, he went in with his troops to break up the fighting. He actually had to besiege Corleone, which was an Arab town. Once the rebellions were put down, he deported all the unconverted Arabs off the island to the town of Lucera, in Apulia on the mainland. The areas like Corleone where the population was depleted, he invited in Lombard settlers (my ancestors came to Corleone in this way).

    Lucera was emptied of Muslims after Charles I defeated Manfred of Sicily (the illegitimate son of Frederick II). They were either sold into slavery or converted. The cathedral in Lucera stands where the mosque was located.

    The Jews were in Sicily until the Inquisition. Ironically, they preserved the Arabic language and elements of Arabic cuisine. Most of the Jews were traders and from Egypt and other Arab-held lands, and spoke Arabic.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wow, Adelisa that is fascinating and thank you so much for sharing so much interesting history. I’ve always been fascinated by the way the Arabs built so many of the churches and cathedrals in Sicily, so it is all the more interesting to have specific details pointed out.
      My husband recently bought a camera with a massive zoom lens, so we will have to test what he can photograph next time we go to Cefalù.

      I do still miss your Sicilian history blog BTW. Are you planning to add any more to it in future, or is that a closed project now?

      Here’s the link if any of my readers want to go and explore…


  4. cat9984 says:

    Beautiful pictures. The laundries were a definite step up from what was happening in a lot of Europe (no baths or clean clothes for extended periods of time). The movie sounds like a great idea. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Penny says:

    I’ve been following you for about 2 years. Good luck on your Italy Magazine nomination.


  6. Rome says:

    Very interesting posts! I am a Sicilian housewife too, now, by marriage.


    1. Congrats!!! I hope we can start comparing notes?? 🙂


  7. Anonymous says:

    By Africans you mean Arab North African dynasties?


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